By Laura Barth, Associate Editor, Harlequin Blaze and American Romance
Do you like the steamy bits best? Sex is an important part of relationships and many romance novels. But writing compelling sex scenes that move the plot forward is not as easy as it seems.
Sex scenes can include some of the most poignant, meaningful moments in a story, or they can make us shudder…and not in a good way. As a Blaze editor, this is an issue I’ve contemplated often over the years. So what is it that makes a great sex scene and how can writers achieve this?
At Harlequin we have many different series lines with varying levels of sensuality. Some, such as Heartwarming and Love Inspired have no sex scenes at all, while others, such as Blaze and Desire can have several, and these scenes can be fairly descriptive and sensual.
If you’re targeting a certain line, it will serve you well to check out that line’s sensuality level at https://harlequin.submittable.com/submit. It’s also helpful to read as many of the books in that line as you can manage, to get a feel for what they want. Even in Blaze, the hottest series, there is a range of heat levels from author to author. Each author’s voice and style is unique, and it’s important to find your own voice and figure out what works for you rather than emulating others. If you try to write a sex scene that doesn’t feel natural to you, it will feel very unnatural to the reader.
In my experience, the “ick” factor comes from a few different things. One of the most common issues is that the sex scene may occur before the reader has really connected with the characters. In this case, we feel as if we’re watching the sex scene rather than experiencing it through the characters. So make sure you give us a good feel for who your characters are, let us fall in love with them a little, before you throw in a sex scene. And if your sex scene has to happen really early on in the story, focus at least as much on the emotional connection as the physical.
Another thing that can lead to the “ick” factor is a sex scene with a lot of description of what’s happening, but not enough sensory information. So, again, the reader gets a solely visual experience. Pulling in other senses—sound, touch, scent and taste—can bring the scene to life and allow us to feel what’s happening rather than just seeing it.
But, don’t stop at telling the reader that the hero can smell the heroine’s spicy perfume, or the scent of the coffee brewing in the kitchen. We want to experience the scene through the characters, and in order to do that we need to know how it feels to them. What sensations are they experiencing and how does this affect them physically and emotionally? And remember, this is a love story, so an important function of the sex scene is to bring the characters together emotionally, not just physically. Sometimes the connection is so powerful it can even scare one or both of the characters, and that can be an interesting plotting element, as well.
Of course, the people who best know how to write compelling sex scenes are our fabulous authors. So I asked our Blaze authors to share their wisdom. As always, they were clever and insightful…and sometimes hilarious! I hope you will find their tips both helpful and entertaining.
Blaze Authors’ Top Tips for Writing Great Sex Scenes
- Have them laugh. Talk. Spill something. It makes your characters human, and so much hotter. —Jo Leigh
- I love to add naughty thoughts that crop up unbidden in a character’s mind. Whether they are thinking about what will happen at the end of the night, extrapolating what the firm grip of the hero’s hand might mean in the bedroom, or maybe having flashes of dirty thoughts while doing something completely mundane, I think it creates wonderful sexual tension before the actual sexy-time starts! —Daire St. Denis
- Write like no one you know (or are related to) is reading. —Taryn Leigh Taylor
- Use ALL the senses. Most of us remember to use sight and touch, but what about taste, scent and sound? Does your hero smell the faded perfume on the heroine’s clothing? Does your heroine taste the salty tang of sweat on the hero’s skin? Immerse your reader in the sensory details to really bring a sex scene to life. —Stefanie London
- Get into deep POV (point of view). Lose the ‘saw’, ‘felt’, ‘heard’ and be in the moment. —Candace Havens
- Sex is silly, it’s easy to mock. It’s when we’re at our most vulnerable as human beings with our hearts and bodies bare. So make that vulnerability worth it. Sex should further the plot, or the character arc—preferably both. It’s not magic penis syndrome, but when we first realize someone sees us as beautiful, sometimes that helps us see it too and that’s powerful. —Sara Arden
- Don’t try to write a blow-by-blow (pun intended?) description from first kiss to after-sex cuddling. Remember, the scene has to be more about the emotions than the physics, and the reader will fill in the gaps. Just give them enough what-goes-where for them to be able to do that. And have fun! If you are, your characters, and your readers, will too. —Regina Kyle
- Immerse yourself in the scene. Close your eyes (assuming you can touch type), pucker up, smile, do whatever your characters are doing. Just make sure no one is filming you… —Isabel Sharpe
- Writing great sex is about focusing on the emotion rather than the physical directives. Decide the tone of the scene and reflect it in the sexual encounter. Being authentic is important throughout the entire story, so this should hold true in the bedroom as well. To me a satisfying sex scene is not only orgasmic, but also organic. Allow your characters to be vulnerable, awkward, funny, uncomfortable—whatever fits the emotion and is true to your characterization. —Liz Talley
- My favorite thing to remember when writing a love scene is that it’s all about these two characters. About what flips their switch (not mine) so I’m able to really focus on their personalities, their issues and their pleasures while they are getting hot and wild together. Not only does that help make the scene very personal to the story, it also makes it a lot easier for me to write! —Tawny Weber
- While the logistics of what’s happening are definitely important, try not to focus too much on body parts but on the emotions and sensations the characters are experiencing. Concentrating solely on the anatomy can make it less of a hot story and more like a clinical how-to manual 🙂 —Tanya Michaels
- Set it to music! Giving the scene a rhythm, an ebb and flow, high notes and low notes, gives it a better sense of “movement.” Marc Broussard’s “The Beauty of Who You Are” is one of my favorites to listen to while writing the sexy bits. —Rhonda Nelson
- Sometimes great sex is about the sexual tension. Use the senses to create a sensual mood. He smelled her unique scent, or his voice was hoarse with longing. A quick touch, brushing against soft skin, or running a hand along a hard muscle or hot flesh. The taste of mint or coffee in his kiss. Or sometimes it doesn’t involve anything but the brain. The heroine feels the hero’s eyes watching her. He’s aware of her whenever she is in the room. —Jillian Burns
- Sex scenes are like fight scenes: there’s a reason for it to happen and every action is followed by a reaction. Your characters need to be different people emotionally when they get out of the bed (or off the table, out of the pool, away from the wall) than when they got into it. It’s their reaction that really grabs the reader and illustrates the emotional change that happens when your hero and heroine connect intimately. —Anne Marsh
- Forget what your Aunt Martha will think! —Vicki Lewis Thompson
Wow, it’s getting hot in here! With all those fantastic tips I’m sure we’ll be seeing some exciting sex scenes in our SYTYCW submissions.
Which of these tips speak to you? Will you think about sex scenes differently? Do you have any tips of your own to share? Please leave a comment and let us know.
If you want to learn more about writing great sex, check out this lively discussion: https://community.harlequin.com/showthread.php/2639-Sensuality-and-Romance-in-Blaze-%E2%80%93-finding-the-balance.
Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #SYTYCW15, and follow @HarlequinSYTYCW.